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“Nobody ever gave me nothing”
Portugal has historically had its motorbike sub-cultures strangled by political factors such as import duties, and yet a passion for all things moto could not be extinguished and is now, like Spain, experiencing a renaissance of custom culture, particularly of the British café racer variety.
Instrumental in this renaissance has been Cesar, progenitor of the hugely popular Café Racer 351 blog/forum; 351 being Portugal’s dialling code. He’s somewhat of a renaissance man himself having been a paratrooper, a record producer and a political academic, he now divides his time between teaching art and Café Racer 351 and the burgeoning moto scene. I think the latter will prevail as his true passion, given the economic situation and his deep understanding of it’s machinations; in the education system he is being asked to do twice as much work for half the money.
Inspired by events such as Wheels and Waves, Cesar and his partner Paula, Portuguese artist Tiago Santiago, and Madrid artists Antonio Merinero, Raulowsky and Nuno Capelo devised Art & Moto, an art exhibition at Lisbon’s bohemian Lx Factory which would for the first time formally coalesce Portugal’s retro moto scene and give us all the opportunity to do what we love, fraternise and ride our bikes en masse in the beautiful environs.
The artwork felt fresh and original and the venue couldn’t have been better, a former printing factory, machinery still in situ, now an important book repository/shop. The exhibition featured collaboration between Antonio and Raulowsky reminiscent of Warhol vs. Basquiat (an 80’s New York art collaboration/show).
Triumph and Harley Davidson Lisbon provided us with bikes gratis for our stay, a generous gesture indicative of the hospitality we enjoyed from all we met in Lisbon. We got a Bonnie and a Sportster. I rode the HD, a new Sportster which Sharon soon nicknamed ‘The Hymen Destroyer’ due to its tiny sloping pillion seat, albeit Lisbon has some pretty ropey road surfaces though being from Liverpool I’m no stranger to that. It was my first Harley ride and I had an open mind, I found I was a bit too tall for the layout of the seat, pegs and bars, the exhaust timbre was too tame and you can’t lean it into corners nearly enough before the sparks fly. On the plus side the engine had plenty of torque and it was so stable in a straight line that I couldn’t resist standing up on the seat during the ride out when we were fooling around. We also found that ‘civilian’ road users gave us smiles, waves and comments on the Harley. Frankly I’d be happy with anything with two wheels and an engine.
One night we got pulled by a van full of militaristic cops for running a red light, the head honcho was a real hard-ass, to use an Americanism, he stubbornly refused to speak any English, it later transpired that his English wasn’t bad at all, a testament to the fact that the Portuguese don’t dub foreign films/TV perhaps. Translating this guy’s hegemony was a sweet-looking, good-humoured underling who, when we told him we’d been gifted the Harley for the week said: “Nobody ever gave me nothing”, I felt quite spoiled and decadent, which we were compared to this guy’s life. I won’t labour the analogy with the plight of the Portuguese people in the current climate, suffice it to say, he smoothed it and we were let on our way without the fine that his boss had assured us we would have to pay.
Having escaped that seemingly inevitable punitive encounter we were determined to spend the ‘fine’ at the flea market the next day. I love these, and the Graca market is my idea of heaven; I got an original Leatherman Micro, “Super Erotica” and “The Doors” on 8-track cartridge, still wrapped in the original cellophane; these were for a friend who has a 60’s BMW sports car with an 8-track player, plus a vintage Keith Richards-esque suede jacket all for €15. At the same market, Paula had recently bought an 80’s yellow, black and white, Yamaha, racing leather jacket for €3! Sharon was understandably envious, though she can’t complain seeing as she owns the full racing-suit version.
Unsurprisingly, given Cesar’s forum, the exhibition was very well attended, bikes from all over Portugal and many from Spain, bikes lined up into the distance and few that I didn’t find worthy of attention, all uniquely modified, plenty of old BMW’s of course, Jap bikes and plenty of Brit bikes; the Portuguese have a special affinity for our twins. Antonio Merinero has been doing the paintwork on a number of bikes of late and his style and influences, particularly from the Indian sub-continent look great on these kinds of bikes.
We showed a short moto-opera film called ‘Hell For Leather’ twice during the exhibition. Dominik Scherrer made it in 1999, Davida provided the helmets etc. It is a film Davida are very proud to have been a part of; it’s pretty out there, our kinda’ thing. We were mildly concerned that some sexio/religious elements of the film could potentially cause offence in a traditional Catholic country but this was a savvy motorbike crowd and it went down better than a $10 ‘nam hooker.
Sharon and I were busy all day on the Davida stand and polished off a good part of a bottle of 12 year old Balvenie in the eve and yet were in perfectly good fettle the next morn to join 50 or so bikes for a ride, a testament to the quality of that fine single-malt. There were some fascinating characters and bikes in attendance including more than one Triton. Sharon understandably abandoned ‘The Hymen Destroyer’© in favour of riding backwards-pillion on a late 80’s BMW GS Dakar ridden by a ballet dancer turned stage manager at the Lisbon opera house. The reverse-cowgirl was ostensibly to shoot some good footage of the action á la KrisTina@Wheels&Waves, though the smile on her face might have had something to do with rubbing up against some of the finest buttocks in the business clenching as he constantly changed gear on the twisties.
We rode to the Northern uplands via the picturesque Sintra, where we didn’t stop but you should, and down again to the Atlantic for the windiest snack-stop ever, then on to lunch by a middle-ages looking roundhouse church on a hill that I found rather captivating inside; so small and simple, I’m becoming somewhat of a militant atheist and yet I found its simplicity disarming. No matter how rational my attitude becomes I was aware that I am at heart quite spiritually romantic by nature.
Lunch was expertly expedited with a camp kitchen by the women folk of the Sintra Motorcycle Club, you may imagine some pre-feminist subservient hierarchy, you would be mistaken, it became quite clear that this was a harmonious matriarchy, well almost, when the boys were having their picture taken with the cream of the Brit bikes, the girls physically dethroned them, one guy belligerently resisted and was rambunctiously shoved off his mount.
Sharon and I chatted over lunch with Antonio and the Spanish photographer Alberto Garcia Alix, he’s one of those unfettered rock n’ roll spirited people; I’ve known a few over the years, though not so many. He’s somewhat of a legend through the honesty of his work and his extrovert ‘vivre sa vie’. We talked of the glory days of Madrid for him and his Movida (a post-Franco cultural movement originating in Madrid) contempories. With his cameras constantly to hand and his mind unconsciously framing the world looking for a good photographic vista, he didn’t strike me as a nostalgic; he’ll keep on photographing what pleases him till he can’t, he will die with pleasure I’m sure, with women holding his hands. Fulfilling people’s expectations when you’re a living legend is an unenviable task (it would be anathema to Antonio) yet he embodies the punk spirit with grace and style.
Filming the weekend were a trio from Madrid who did a series of interviews to be used as voiceovers for their film, one of the questions they asked was whether I preferred riding alone or in a group, I said I preferred the solitude, no-one to distract you, no-one to be responsible for, a time to think, meditate, compose music in your head, Zen at the risk of sounding redundant. When I told Sharon, she said she’d answered pretty much the same. It’s the reason long bike rides on your own are so good for your spirit, you’re very much in the world and yet floating above it and removed at the same time, a time to restore your mind’s equilibrium.
Sharon promised me a surprise one night, I couldn’t work out what it could be until she brought me to Lisbon’s fine old opera house, she’d managed to get us tickets for La Traviata from the ballet dancer who is now the stage manager of said opera house. Not just any tickets either, the best box in the house, ignoring the royal box. We were just stage-left (i.e. the right) of the orchestra pit and wonderful was the production. We were spirited to the backstage bar after and then on to another joint on a hill overlooking the city with Alvaro and Sophia the ballerina with much verve. Again we heard about cuts, their budget cut by two thirds, many of the leading lights of the company have donated their holiday bonuses to keep the productions afloat simply because they love what they do and are lucky enough to be able to do what they love. I felt lucky in Lisboa.